North Korea’s First Cruise Ship Is A Bit Of A Joke http://www.2oceansvibe.com/2011/09/14/north-koreas-first-cruise-ship-is-a-bit-of-a-joke/ http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/14/world/asia/north-korea-seeks-to-lure-tourists-to-holiday-cruises.html
North Korean Cruise Seeks Tourists, 8 to a Room
ABOARD THE MANGYONGBONG, off North Korea — It was billed as a cruise ship, but the creaking, nearly-40-year-old vessel that set sail from the remote North Korean town of Rajin had more of the trappings of a tramp steamer. With its cramped cabins, cut-rate cuisine and foul, water-deprived bathrooms, it was not about to compete anytime soon with Cunard or Carnival in the leisure industry.
Then again, it does not have to. As North Korea’s latest venture into the tourism business, it need not concern itself with rivals. The trick, as its operators conceded, will be to attract enough vacationers.
Desperate for foreign currency, officials in secretive North Korea are trying to lure tourists to holiday cruises along the length of the impoverished country’s east coast. Earlier this month, a trial run by the rusty Mangyongbong was completed in 43 trying hours at sea. More than 200 people were packed into dim and musty cabins, sometimes eight to a room with floor mattresses. Chinese tourists and businesspeople shared quarters with North Korean officials and foreign journalists.
The inaugural cruise presumably had support at the highest levels in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. The organizer, Taepung International Investment Group, falls under the National Defense Commission, which answers directly to the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il.
“I love peace and the Korean Peninsula,” said Park Chol-su, president of Taepung, as he sat on the deck of the Mangyongbong. “Our company symbolizes peace. We can even hire Americans.”
The North Korean government may be one of the world’s most paranoid and hermetic, but it sees tourism playing an increasingly important role in its economy. Tourism is exempt from the economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations to pressure Mr. Kim to abandon his nuclear weapons program, and it has been growing in recent years as foreigners strain to get a glimpse of this country.
It is difficult to get reliable statistics on tourist numbers, but one well-connected person in the industry estimated that at least 24,000 foreign tourists visited last year, more than 80 percent of them Chinese.
There have even been two recent motorcade tours in which Chinese have driven their own cars into North Korea.
Critics say money from tourism helps prop up a repressive regime. But advocates of engagement contend that tourism helps open the country to outside influences, and that the revenue could help ordinary Koreans get through the current hardship.
“Tourism was a major factor that allowed Cuba to weather the end of the Soviet trading system after the cold war,” said John Delury, a historian at Yonsei University in Seoul who observes relations between the two Koreas and China. “Of course, North Korea can’t rival tropical Cuba as a tourist destination, but Pyongyang’s embrace of bringing in foreign visitors is a positive sign of willingness to integrate more fully with the outside world.”
For Westerners, the annual staging of mass performances in Pyongyang, the Arirang Festival, has traditionally been the biggest draw, while Chinese have tended to make short trips across the border. But North Korean officials are clearly trying to appeal to higher-end travelers with the new cruise program. Mr. Park said he hoped to bring Europeans on the next voyage, possibly in October. He also said he intended to get a bigger, swankier boat.
The trial run began on Aug. 29, when Mr. Park led scores of foreigners across the border from northeast China to Rajin, the port town that North Korea has designated a free economic and trade zone. Some of the visitors had paid about $470 for the five-day trip, which included several days on land. Others were traveling free of charge because they were friends of Mr. Park, who is a Chinese citizen. Many of the Chinese ran tour agencies, and Mr. Park and North Korean officials were trying to encourage them to promote North Korea tourism.
Bilingual government guides had been assigned to the tour buses. An affable 25-year-old, Mun Ho-yong, spouted off some facts in English about his country: “In 1950, there was a war, the Korean War, started by the United States.” Now, he said, Korea had entered the phase of “universal socialist construction.”
In Rajin, a town of dirt roads and occasional blackouts, the guides stuck to the program, first taking their guests to a towering portrait of North Korea’s founder, Kim Il-sung, for photographs and then ushering them into a theater to watch children perform patriotic numbers. That night, the visitors attended a banquet where the vice mayor, Hwang Chol-nam, toasted Mr. Park for organizing the cruise.
“It has not been easy,” Mr. Hwang said. The two then belted out a karaoke song glorifying Kim Il-sung. But it was at noon the next day that the real festivities got under way. At the harbor, where ships bearing coal depart for Shanghai, officials in dark suits lined up along a red carpet to give speeches. Then came the blaring of music dedicated to — whom else? — Kim Il-sung (“The Marshal Rides a Galloping White Horse”). Confetti flew and about 500 students and workers in uniforms waved flags and plastic flowers as the boat lurched from the dock.
The Mangyongbong had been used as a cargo ship since 1992, but before that had served as a passenger ferry mostly for North Koreans living in Japan. Their families were forcibly taken to Japan during the Japanese occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945, and decades later they rode the ferry to visit relatives in their homeland.
The North Korean coastline disappeared from view for much of the 21-hour journey south. There was no shuffleboard. Chinese passengers broke out decks of cards. Mr. Hwang, the vice mayor, changed from a navy suit into a green polo shirt and drank beers with foreigners on the top deck. An American asked him whether there was any chance the ship might stray into international waters and encounter foreign naval vessels.
“You’re in North Korea here,” Mr. Hwang said. “You’re completely safe. The North Korean military is protecting you.”
Dinner that night resembled a mess hall at an American Army base in Iraq: metal trays, fluorescent lights, diced chicken and cucumbers ladled from self-serve communal bowls. Waitresses threw leftovers overboard. The wind blew bits of trash back onto the deck.
The next morning, the boat pulled into the harbor of the nature park at Mount Kumgang, not far from the border with South Korea. The day and night spent there involved hiking, an acrobatics show and a video pitch for the Chinese businesspeople on investing in the park. The South Korean government has barred its citizens from traveling there since a fatal shooting in 2008, and the park’s South Korean developer has suspended its operations. “Now we’re in a military zone; if you stay behind, you get shot,” Mr. Mun said, apparently jokingly, as the buses pulled up to a rocky beach.
The hotel had a tennis court and a bar, and the visitors were taken to a well-trimmed golf course. There was even a North Korean-style duty-free shop offering, among other things, a homegrown version of Viagra (main ingredient: antler).
The return trip took 22 hours. After a lunch of instant noodles, the harbor at Rajin loomed in the distance. “We admit that we have a lot of shortcomings to overcome,” Mr. Park said.
The passengers stared at the buses waiting to take them back to China. “One trip is enough for a lifetime,” someone said. The ship slowly approached the dock.
Then there was a great crashing sound, and the Mangyongbong shuddered. “It’s like the Titanic,” a Chinese man yelled. People pointed at the concrete pier — the ship had rammed straight into it, denting the front of the hull and reducing a corner of the structure into a pile of rubble. The captain, it seemed, was just as eager as everyone else to get back to shore.
more video http://video.nytimes.com/video/2011/09/13/world/asia/100000001051211/north-koreas-first-cruise.html